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Books, Journals, New Media
February 20, 2002

Breast Cancer: The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


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JAMA. 2002;287(7):917-918. doi:10.1001/jama.287.7.917-JBK0220-3-1

The Breast Cancer Wars provides a thoughtful and insightful history of how medical beliefs, cultural trends, and the women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s have influenced the treatment of breast cancer in the United States. The book's premise is that disease "cannot be understood outside its social and cultural context."

Barron H. Lerner, MD, is associate professor of medicine and public health at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He begins by describing how, when he was 16 years old, his mother was treated for breast cancer. As a teenager, Lerner and his family believed that her willingness to undergo aggressive medical and surgical treatment was responsible for her survival. Only later, as a medical resident in the 1980s, did Lerner realize that there was scientific evidence suggesting that the intrinsic biology of a particular cancer might be an equal or even more important determinant of survival. This discovery led Lerner to question whether his prior belief in the benefit of aggressive therapy was rooted in cultural beliefs. In this book, Lerner asks if our cultural acceptance of aggressive cancer therapy is the result of our nation's "War Against Cancer" and search for heroic figures in our "struggle."